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Surprising Angles and Linguistically Enriching:

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Notes on Contemporary German-Language ‘Migrant’ Literature
By Ilma Rakusa

An interesting and important development on the Germanlanguage literary scene over the past few years has been the rise of German-language writers with a migrant background. And not only is there an increase in their number but also in the cultural weight they carry. The arts pages devote lengthy essays to them, juries shower them with important prizes, symposiums and anthologies document the growing interest they are attracting. And quite right, too. For it is these newcomers to the German language who are enriching the literature of today’s Germany, Austria and Switzerland with new impulses and colours, with appealing subject matter and unusual turns of phrase. Writers like the Turkish Emine Sevgi Özdamar and Feridun Zaimoglu or Japanese-born Yoko Tawada, Zsuzanna Gahse and Terézia Mora both of Hungarian descent or the Bulgarian-born Ilija Trojanow and Dimitré Dinev, Michael Stavaric from Moravia and the young Bosnian writer Saša Staniši ´c – their origins may be as varied as their books and yet they have one thing in common: an outside perspective on their German surroundings and language.
 
A testimony worth listening to is that of Harald Weinrich, who in 1985 set up the Adelbert von Chamisso Prize specifically for writers with a ‘migration’ background. He says that the absorbed experience of otherness which characterises the outsider’s perspective leads to a ‘shaking up of habit’ and does not indulge in the ‘routine usage of everyday language.’ These are, according to Weinrich, the optimal preconditions for poetic language and the ‘capturing of a world.’
 
Their contribution, therefore, is not that they are exotic, but that they bring about an expansion of perspective and an exploration of the possibilities of expression in language. In Kanak Sprak, for example, Feridun Zaimoglu created an idiom that mixed the slang of the children of ‘guestworkers’ with Anatolian dialect: ‘…It’s a Babylonian hotchpotch of a brazenly conspicuous, brazenly needled generation…It contains snatches of provincial dialect and touches of High Turkish as well as the metaphor-laden staccato street and urban slang. (…) Kanak Sprak stands for a surge of images, bringing vigour to the melody of language and verve to the scene.’ Zaimoglu’s language, with its combination of urban underclass problems and oriental legends, of social criticism and opulent Eastern narration, was a sweeping success among a most diverse group of readers.
 
While Emine Sevgi Özdamar hasn’t launched a Kanak Attack, she is regarded as an enchantress with language. Her German is de-familiarised through Turkish turns-of-phrase and metaphors, it has something of the fairy-tale about it and sometimes seems like a translation from some archaically flowery idiom. This is prevalent in the very titles of her books: Life is a Caravanserai. Has Two Doors. I came in One. I Went out the Other. Özdamar’s prose revolves around the paradox of a double identity that is continuously nailed to language itself – the ‘Mother Tongue’ and the foreign language, in this case German. Exploring the world and oneself is in effect exploring language. And thus Gastgesichter (‘Guest-Faces’), one of Özdamar’s many short stories, begins with a reflection upon language: ‘When I was a child in Istanbul, the first European word I heard was “Deux-Pičces”. Every Monday my parents went to the Teyvare Sinemasi cinema. Its name means Flugzeugkino (‘Airplane Cinema’). That cinema showed European films only … “What are you going to wear?” they asked each week. One day my mother replied, “I’m going to wear my Deux-Pičces.” “What’s that, Mother?” I asked, “What does Deux-Pičces mean?” “Deux- Pičces means Deux-Pičces,” my mother answered.’ The transfer of language is comic and full of misunderstandings. That is what Özdamar capitalizes on – to surprising and refreshing effect.
 
Zsuzsanna Gahse turns just as exacting an eye on words, as if having to test, weigh up, probe each one. Scepticism towards language and revelling in language are the two sides of the coin for this Hungarian, born in 1946. She claims that ‘every word is a translation and time lingers over every word.’ Readers of her wonderfully original recent books – for example, durch und durch (‘through and through’),Instabile Texte / zu zweit (‘Unstable Texts / in twos’), or Oh, Roman (‘Oh, Roman’ – in German the title plays with the dual meaning of Roman, both a man’s name and the word for ‘novel’) – also have to linger over the writing itself for the words are always being questioned. Here’s an example: ‘…all the words in the following text have a virus. It’s possible they’ll infect the neighbouring words that are still intact, or those words that could be here but don’t dare to be out of fear (the fear of being silenced). The first of August is a national holiday in Switzerland and associated with a corresponding amount of noise. While brightly coloured fireworks flew through the sky this year and you could hardly hear your own voice (to hear – “vernehmen” – is a particularly infected word, although “infected” is also in a precarious position – add another letter to it as many people do and the word is dead), there was an incident in Lucerne of the sort referred to as a “Fenstersturz” (‘defenestration’). Or simply “Brückli” for those in the know, and those who aren’t are none the wiser…’
 
Interestingly it is this ponderous style that makes the words both three-dimensional and introspective. At any rate nothing is taken for granted here, or slips through. No matter what is recounted, language is part of it.
 
This is even more extreme in the case of the Japanese writer Yoko Tawada. Tawada, who came to Germany at the age of nineteen and made it her permanent home aged twenty-two. She writes alternately in Japanese and German and discovers so much strangeness in her German surroundings, and also in the German language, that to read her is to be constantly amazed. For Tawada, too, everything begins with words, or even with the alphabet. ‘What, for example, does an “A” say to me? The longer I stare at a letter, the more mysterious and alive it becomes… It can be dangerous to unleash a letter into the world, for the writer, or the typesetter, cannot know what will become of it. You write a “B” – it might become a Blossom but also a Bomb. Every letter in the alphabet is unreliable, unpredictable and full of the unexpected.’ (Tübingen Poetics Lectures). It’s not for nothing that Tawada’s books sport titles like Von der Muttersprache zur Sprachmutter (‘From the Mother-Tongue to the Tongue- Mother’), Das Wörterbuchdorf (‘The Dictionary Village’) or Überseezungen (‘Overseas Tongues’ – in German this title plays on the word for translation, Übersetzung). Hers is prose with ethnological as well as poetic elements that both disenchant and enchant. The surreal aspect of Tawada’s writing can be traced to two widely differing cultures reflected in one another. Only in Tawada’s writing does one find ‘faces that can be flicked through like a travel guide’ and the observation that someone speaking a foreign language is ‘an ornithologist and a bird at once.’
 
While it is not always the case that this heightened awareness of language of ‘migrant’ authors breeds such wondrous flowers as this, it is always distinctive. In the case of the young writer Saša Staniši ´c, whose debut How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone quickly became a bestseller, one reviewer was prompted to claim that Staniši ´c had given an oxygen boost to the ‘old German’. Indeed, the author peppers his tragic-burlesque novel, told from the imaginative perspective of a fourteen-yearold during the Bosnian war with foreign-sounding turns-of-phrase, jokes and curses, with opulent images and original metaphors. Referring to the first-person narrator he writes, here in Anthea Bell’s translation, ‘I’m a mixture. I’m half and half. There was everyone in the schoolyard wondering how I could be something so vague, there were discussions about whose blood is stronger in your body, male or female, and me wishing I could be something not so vague, or a made-up thing (…), a German autobahn, a flying horse that drinks wine, a shot in the throat of a house.’ Staniši ´c’s language is playful. It is bold, crosses borders and is the perfect fit for a different gaze upon a war with wounds still palpable today.
 
In conclusion, and without exaggeration, it is the writers who have come to German culture from elsewhere who are substantially enriching, expanding and stimulating that culture – not only through their unusual literary subjects but through their courageous, at times risk-taking, use of language. Routine has no place here – daring is everything. Which provides the reader with a unique chance: to rediscover him- or herself through a mirror of unfamiliarity.
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Ilma Rakusa,
born in Slovakia in 1946, is a writer and translator. Prizes include the Petrarca Translation Prize (1991) and the Vilenica Prize for Central European literature (2005). Translations include works by Marguerite Duras, Marina Tsvetaeva, Anton Chekov and Imre Kertész.
 
Translated by Rebecca Morrison
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